The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

Deleted User
Hi, all. Um, there's a good chance I'll be commissioned to make a doc
for a production company. Problem is (and it's not, really), I'm a
movie guy and think in 'cinematic' terms. So I was wondering if
anyone could, and would, be kind enough to post a link to ANY online
web tutorial or article that covers the basic outline (subject
approach, research, blah blah blah) of Documentary film
writing/directing. I don't really need this information but an
objective (i.e. theoretical) perspective might prove a great time
saver in organizing my thoughts & actions.

Muchos gracias.
Erica Ginsberg
Heather, it sounds like a great idea for a project but I would have
to agree with Doug's comments. Also I wouldn't be too quick to say
Walmart does not involve controversy. Michael Moore made them look
pretty bad in "Bowling for Columbine" (if you haven't yet seen his
film, he takes WalMart and K-Mart to task for selling firearms and/or
ammunition in their stores. K-Mart changed its policy as a result of
his film, but now Moore is campaigning vigorously on his website
against Walmart). I'd be very surprised if Walmart would agree to
any filmmaker doing an observational doc about them.

Space, docs can be every bit as "cinematic" as fiction films -- with
a storyline, a protagonist/antagonist, a climax, a conclusion, etc.
The main difference is that most documentaries (barring those dull
historical films with only a narrator and archival footage) are not
scripted in advance of the shoot (though, of course, the director may
have an outline and a fairly good idea of what he/she is looking for)
and you have more leeway in structuring than you do if you come from
the Syd Field school. Sometimes the footage is just given to an
editor who re-constructs it. Sometimes it is tightly scripted. Even
when scripted, the format may look considerably different than what
you would be accustomed to with a fiction script. Others here may
disagree, but I find the 2 column approach works best, especially for
films that use a lot of voiceover over visuals.

I would recommend two books to you: "Directing the Documentary" by
Michael Rabiger (excellent overview of the process)
and "Scriptwriting for High Impact Videos" (covers industrials as
much as docs, but gives some suggested guidelines as far as script
Deleted User

Thanks for the info. I am well aware that a doc can (and
should) be cinematic, but I always feel that some kind of 'outline'
of objectives is always a great way of aligning ones thought process
before starting any kind of project (cinematic or not). I have heard
about "Directing the Documentary" and I'll probably buy a copy as it
seems to be very highly regarded by those in the doc circle. Anyhoot
thanks again. Also, any additional info (or links?) to the '2 column
approach' would be welcome.


Space Ludwig

P.S. FYI, I can't stand that insufferable, patronizing Syd Field. I've
bought and read three of his books which I've given away.
Erica Ginsberg
Then you've come to the right place. Don't think there's much love
lost between most documentarians and Mr. Field though some folks
would argue that docs can and should follow a similar structure to
the 3-Act fiction film.

Not sure of too much on the web in the way of formatting. Closest I
could come is
<> If I'm
doing a paper cut based on window dubs, I usually also add a column
to note Tape Number and timecode.
Deleted User

Thanks for the link. Also, I just won "Directing the Documentary" on
ebay for $5, which is a bargain, I guess, so that should provide some
useful info. Apparently this is THE book to read. However, I heard the
same thing about Field's books which turned out to be a pedantic
farce so I'll wait until I read it to pass judgement. I'm looking
forward to readjusting my thinking process. Thanks for your help and
info. I'll post my progress and hopefully the 'veterans' can give me
advice along the way when I hit road blocks.


Space Ludwig
Robert Goodman
There is no THE BOOK to read other than Aristotle.
Directing the Doc has some useful info but is hardly the end all and
be all of making nonfiction. If you want insight go to the library
and look at the vast array of nonfiction books. That's the
possibilities that exist for nonfiction films. Everything from "In
Cold Blood" to Dave Barry Cleans His Sink.
Deleted User

Um, I believe the rules laid out in Aristotle's poetics, if I am
correct in assuming this is what you are referring to, were
thoroughly - and successfully - refuted by the movie 'Pulp Fiction'.
If you read ALL of my previous posts you will realize that what I am
looking for is not info on how to write a story, nor am I lacking in
creative inspiration, but rather a basic outline of what to consider
when making a documentary picture, i.e. technical information. Dave
Barry cannot help me in this department. Thanks anyway.


Space Ludwig
Robert Goodman
Pulp Fiction refuted nothing. Technical information for making docs
is no different than making any other film. They don't use different
presses for printing nonfiction and fiction.
Margot Roth
I think Robert is taking the word "technical" too literally here.
Obviously Space is referring to the methods, the thought organization,
etc., not literally issues of tape stock, e.g.

And indeed there is a big difference in approach to making a fiction
or doc film. They are entirely different beasts.

Space, you might want to hire an a.p. or co-producer who is
experienced in docs to help you. I don't think a book can replace
human knowledge and experience in this case.
Margot Roth
Heather, good to see you here and your idea sounds excellent,
although the challenges do seem a bit daunting. I wonder if you could
go ahead and do some shooting and cut a short demo for Walmart to look

It's all rather unfortunate with the timing of Michael Moore's movie.
Did Michael Moore shoot inside Walmart? Did he get permission?

If the angle of your film is a Fred Wiseman type of
humanity-revealing through a microcosm, I'd imagine it would be great
publicity for Walmart. What makes this tricky is you don't know who
you're pitching to, exactly. If you can pitch in person, you can
gauge their sensibility better. You could pitch it to them as almost
a reality series built around Walmart (crass, but whatever). Of
course, if you pitch it to someone with a brain and sensitivity, pitch
the humanity/vérité angle.